Poetic Justice: How “Poetry Saved” Marjai Neal

“To me, poetry means home. What I mean by that is poetry has changed me as a person. Not just my artistry and my writing, but it’s just changed me, my mindset … it saved my life.”

MU Junior Marjai Neal never expected her life to turn out the way it has. She never expected to find a place where she belonged. She never expected her writing would open the doors it has. She definitely did not expect to gain the attention of the Today Show and speak with Oprah Winfrey. Yes, that actually happened. More on that later.

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MU Junior and KC Scholar Marjai Neal poses for a photo near Jesse Hall. (Photo/Becca Newton)

Neal is someone who reversed the cards that were dealt against her. The hurdles she faced at a young age would have made any person lose hope, but not her. Neal utilized those hurdles and made beautiful art out of her situation.

Born and raised in Kansas City in a single mother household with two sisters, Neal’s family kept her grounded.

“I always grew up with a strong sense of self because I’ve always been surrounded by strong, dedicated and passionate women,” Neal said. “My mother, she’s a matriarch. She always made sure that we were in after-school programs. She made sure that we were reading and that we did our homework. She’s tired, but she’s getting up every single day hustling.”

Then came the day that changed everything. Neal and her family were evicted from their apartment and left homeless. Neal was just 10 years old at the time, going from shelter to shelter.

“I think going through homelessness and living at a homeless shelter and one minute your friend is there, one minute they’re not and then seeing your mom struggle or seeing your sister rebel also, that just really takes a large toll and it makes you tired,” Neal said. “At a young age I was very exhausted, and it was because I was holding on to all those things that were weighing me down.”

Neal did not want anyone at school to know what she was going through. She was even embarrassed getting off the school bus, often walking in the opposite direction of the bus stop so no one would figure out she lived at the shelter down the street.

Without a home to call her own and lack of stability in her life this caused an immense amount of stress for Neal. She was angry at the world, often lashing out and becoming very defensive. Neal knew she needed to find a way to channel her emotions.

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MU journalism student Marjai Neal performs one of her poems during her senior year of high school at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy in October 2018.

“I’ll have to say around the age of 13 or 14 was when I really decided to take that act of change and to not carry the entire world on my back alone,” Neal said. “I’ve always heard it takes a village to raise a child but growing up, I felt like I just couldn’t find the right village for me until I decided to open up and release all of those things that were kind of trapping me behind.”

That village came in the form of her high school’s poetry team after a senior student approached Neal and suggested she try out. She instantly fit in.

“I was the youngest person in the room, and I felt a sense of belonging and community that I was lacking elsewhere,” Neal said.

From then on, Neal found her true calling and slowly the baggage of her past was no longer weighing her down. With Neal on the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy’s poetry team her school took home two regional championships.   

From homelessness to spirituality, Neal writes about her life in the way she wants. Her very first poem was about being physically and verbally abused by a family member. No matter the topic, she can spin it into breathtaking literature that is uniquely her. Putting pen to paper is putting pain to paper for Neal.

“Poetry really was my therapy. It has supernatural powers to me,” Neal said. “When I was going through my darkest times, all I had was a piece of paper and a pen. It was comforting.”

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CASE Scholar Marjai Neal shows off her “Poetic Justice” tattoo. She got it on her right forearm so when she writes she always sees it and remembers why and who she does it for. (Photo/Becca Newton)

Permanently inked on Neal’s right forearm are the words: Poetic Justice. By definition, poetic justice is the fact of experiencing a fitting or deserved retribution for one’s actions. It’s also a 1993 romantic film starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur.

“I grew up on the film, I watched the DVD so much it got scratched up and doesn’t even work anymore,” Neal Joked.

“I always resonated with Janet Jackson’s character Justice. I got (poetic justice) tatted because I feel like it perfectly sums up how I use my platform and my voice as a black woman. I use it to bring awareness, healing and justice through metaphors and figurative language. People underestimate poetry but there’s power in those poetic words that create a form of justice. So, I got it on my right arm so when I write I can always remember why and who I do it for.”

“Who” she does it for are people just like her. Neal works closely with the HALO Foundation, a nonprofit organization specializing in art therapy for homeless and at-risk youth in Kansas City and Jefferson City. Neal first met the volunteers from HALO when they visited a shelter she was staying at when she was 10.

“I grew up and I fell in love with their mission and how they were reaching kids,” Neal said. “I started doing my own workshops. I started helping feed them. I started traveling to and from the homes and just talking to the girls and hanging out with the babies.”

Through HALO and her poetry, Neal went through the healing process she desperately needed.

“It made me realize that I’m just not alone in this world,” Neal said. “Everybody is going through something. It might not be the same as me, but we’re all connected in our experiences.”

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MU Junior Marjai Neal performing a poem at the HALO art auction in Jefferson City in March 2020.

Someone Neal shares her experiences with the most is her older sister Shimeka. Shimeka was even more rebellious but was also able to steer towards the right path. She is proud to see how far her baby sister has come and is not surprised by where she is now.

“Marjai has always been a writer. She has written since she was younger. I think she found her calling and her purpose and I love that for her because that’s really something that’s hard to find and some people never find it.” Shimeka said.

Neal looks up to her older sister because she turned her life around and became the first to graduate college in their family.

“Seeing her thrive and shine, it literally made me realize I can do that,” Neal said. “Those things don’t hold me back. They’re just a reminder and they’re just motivation to keep going and not revert back to the things that I used to do.”

And keep going she did.

During her senior year of high school, Neal was chosen to receive the KC Scholarship, though it came at an unexpected time. Neal had applied for the scholarship during her sophomore year of high school but didn’t get it. With her senior year coming to an end, Neal thought her chance of earning the scholarship was over.

“I was going do the A-plus program, which is two years free at a community college and I was like, ‘I’m going to go to Penn Valley’, but I knew that that’s the route for some people, but I just knew that wasn’t the route that I wanted to take,” she said.

Then one day, Neal was called out of one of her classes and brought into a private room. She thought she was in trouble. It was far from that. Instead, Neal received news that would change the trajectory of her college career. She was one of two students chosen to receive the $50,000 KC scholarship to attend MU.

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Marjai Neal is all smiles after finding out she received the KC Scholarship, Dec. 17, 2018. (Photo/KIPP Instagram)

“When I tell you that was the recharge I needed for my battery. It got me reinspired. You need support in anything, like [with] my poetry I have support and [in] academics I have support, but financially, that was the only thing that was really, really holding me up,” Neal said. “That day changed my life. It changed the road I took.”

As a freshman in a completely new environment, Neal was a bit nervous when she first arrived at MU. Student Service Coordinator Ana-Maria Fernandez and the Center for Academic Success & Excellence (CASE) helped her adjust. The co-hort meetings Neal attended every Monday allowed her meet new people and become familiar with the campus.

“I would have to say the CASE helped me realize Mizzou is home. I belong here. I have resources and support and I have people in my corner here,” she said.

While some may assume Creative Writing would be Neal’s choice of major, she is currently seeking a degree in Journalism because she wants to expand her reach to others.

“I know that I’m educated. I know that I’m healing and I’m starting conversations through poetry and through figurative language and metaphors and similes,” she said. “But I wanted to challenge myself on bigger platforms, so I felt like journalism was a route where I could just mature and grow up in my writing.”

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MU Junior Marjai Neal’s Poem “To the Woman Who Fought for Me When I Didn’t Have the Strength To”. (Photo/Marjai Neal Instagram)

Despite everything Neal has endured in the past, the fruits of her labor continue to grow. After writing a poem called “Home” that HALO’s founder Rebecca Welsh loved, Welsh told her friend about Neal and sent her some of Neal’s work. That friend was Oprah Winfrey.

In February of this year, During HALO’s first Virtual Auction “The Main Event”, which raised over $650,000 for their fight to help end childhood homelessness, Welsh surprised Neal with a virtual visit from Winfrey herself. It’s a moment Neal will never forget.

“I was literally shaking. I was holding back tears. It was just a moment of ‘Is this real? Is Oprah saying my name right now? Little old me?’,” Neal said. “I was just hanging on to every little drop of wisdom and everything that she was saying. I was just at the edge of my seat taking it all in.”

Being able to live in that moment made Neal feel as if the puzzle pieces were finally connecting.

“It made me more appreciative of where I came from, of the things that I’ve been through, of all the hurt and all the pain,” she said. “It made me so much more appreciative because if I didn’t go through the things that I went through, I wouldn’t have been able to write the poetry that I write. I wouldn’t have been able to be that voice for the voiceless.”

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MU Junior Marjai Neal is shocked when she is surprised by Oprah Winfrey during HALO’s first Virtual Auction “The Main Event” which raised over $650,000 for their fight to help end childhood homelessness, Feb. 26, 2021. (Photo/Marjai Neal Instagram)

The interview with Winfrey was then sent to The Today Show where Neal was nationally featured. She wants to continue sharing her story and talent. She still volunteers with the HALO Foundation and is still active in the Kansas City poetry scene.

As for the future, of course graduating is her main priority, but as Neal has proven there is no limit on what she can do.

“I really do see myself working at some place like Cosmo or Teen Vogue where I will be able to really hone in on my love and knowledge of fashion, lifestyle journalism and things like that, but really my future is pretty open,” Neal said. “I’m just kind of picking up on skills and then polishing skills and seeing kind of where they take me and what doors open for me to go through.”

Words have given Neal power. They have given her strength. They have helped her heal. They have shown her resilience. And the MU junior is just getting started.

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KC Scholar Marjai Neal looks into the distance. (Photo/Becca Newton)

Neal plans to release a poetry book called Ghetto Gospels (For Girls Who’ve Gone Ghost) detailing her coming of age and how she triumphed through certain situations in her life. She is also aiming towards starting a clothing line that is completely funded and designed by her.

For anyone who feels hopeless or feels they can’t overcome whatever obstacle is in their way, Neal has some words of wisdom to share:

“I want them to know they’re not alone, that even when you are feeling down and lonely, that there’s somebody out there who’s willing to listen, to talk, to love on you and that oftentimes, those things are temporary,” Neal said. “There’s always a silver lining, so anything is possible, and really, if you believe it, and you work towards it, your dreams can be accomplished.”